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Tap into the power of the passive voice

Passive voice is something copywriters are taught to avoid. But there are times when it’s incredibly useful. Using an active voice produces attractive, crisp, dynamic copy, but it’s only one tool in the smart copywriter’s tool-kit. The passive voice is just as useful if you know when and where to employ it. Here’s an Oxygen guide to making the passive voice your secret weapon. But first, a quick grammar lesson to make sure you understand the difference…

Using the active voice

Active verbs bring copy to life. They’re the staple of dynamic, energetic copy. So when you claim that your product (the subject) causes (the verb) the benefit (the object) e.g. ‘Domestos kills 99% of germs’, that’s active as opposed to stating that the benefit is being caused by the product. ‘99% of germs are killed when Domestos is used’ is grammatically correct but doesn’t have the same ring or urgency.

The active voice puts the subject first and emphasises the doer, rather than what is being done. In the passive voice, the ‘receiver’ or object rather than the ‘performer’ of an action becomes the focus. So ‘don’t leave doors open’ is active, and ‘doors must not be left open’ is passive.

The active voice is direct. It lessens the need for adverbs, shortening text and removing layers of stuffiness between you and the reader. It puts action first and makes it easier to use powerful, energising verbs to describe your product. And the passive voice is harder for people who are less well-educated or who speak English as a second language to understand.

How to spot the passive voice

Passive sentences usually use the word ‘by’ or the verb ‘to be’ (am, are, is, was, can be, was, were). They put the recipient or receiver of an action first, and the performer of the action second. Or they omit the performer from the sentence entirely e.g. ‘the metal was observed to solidify at a temperature of 100 degrees’.

How to make the passive voice your secret weapon

  1. Use passive voice to sound objective

Technical, legal or instructive copy needs to sound objective, and using the passive voice is the perfect way to achieve this. This is in part because the person doing the observing or instructing is not important or isn’t to be questioned. It’s also useful in situations where the active would sound aggressive such as ‘We no longer refund fares’ as opposed to ‘Refunds on fares will no longer be provided’. This is a useful way to ‘bury’ less attractive information

  1. Use passive voice to put the benefit first

You don’t want your reader to have to get to the end of the sentence to find out what you’re offering. So ‘we’re giving away 5 luxury breaks in Las Vegas’ is less effective than ‘5 Las Vegas luxury breaks to be given away’.

  1. Use the passive voice to enhance SEO

Equally, search engines favour search terms that are placed at the start of sentences. And benefits are what your customers will search for. So ‘Better brain function found to be a consequence of fasting’ will get you a higher ranking than ‘Fasting produces better brain function’. Customers won’t search for ‘fasting’. They probably don’t even want to fast. What they want is better brain function, so that’s what they’ll type into a search engine. On the web, the passive voice can be a major weapon. You can use it to front load keywords at the beginning of headlines, bullet points, subheadings, captions and first sentences, and your keyword rich excerpts will still be visible in the truncated sentences displayed on search engine results pages. By the way, that’s why the first sentence of this post is passive.

  1. Use passive voice to turn scanners into readers

Any copywriter will tell you that the problem with the passive voice is that it slows the reader down and makes copy less scannable. But when judiciously applied to a headline or subheading, it can force scanners to slow down enough to read in order to find out what you’re offering. And once they start to read, they’re much more likely to continue reading. This technique works particularly well when formulating informative news-style headlines which place the benefit first.

So passive voice isn’t the enemy of good copy that you were told it was. Don’t forget to use it judiciously to enhance your copy’s true purpose.

Still confused about when to employ an active or passive voice? We’ll analyse your needs to create copy with the perfect balance of both. Give Oxygen a call today on 0845 2606 255.



Steve Lodge: Steve trained as a NCTJ journalist and is an experienced copywriter. He has over 15 years in agency, and started Oxygen in 2002.